social movements + innovation lab


Elizabeth Dawes Gay’s Story

Elizabeth has always been committed to making the world a better place for women of color. At CoreAlign, she found a community of practice to support her in developing a leadership initiative for progressive Black women. The CoreAlign fellowship also helped Elizabeth partner with like-minded people working to transform how people understand, prioritize, and address racial disparities in maternal health.

I feel like social change is something I’ve always wanted to do, without really having the vocabulary around what it was. I always wanted to help people and make the world better, even for animals—when I was younger I wanted to be a vet. In undergrad I was on a pre-med track studying neuroscience, and that was really because my understanding of how I could help people was limited. I thought I needed to be a doctor. I was good at science and interested in medical science, and so I thought that was the way to do it. But in my time in Philadelphia, doing research studies and volunteering in the community, a veil was lifted from my eyes. I wanted to help people and I learned that there were other ways to do that.

Being a doctor and seeing someone after they’ve gotten sick wasn’t enough for me. Running a public health program is only sustainable as long as the funding is there. And so I needed to be involved in creating policy that would help establish more long-term solutions. For grad school I moved to DC to study public health and health policy. For me it was always this expansive notion of policy—I had a very strong idea that policy is a means to sustainable change. 

I’d been interested in racial disparities in maternal health for a few years and wanted to do something about it. I started talking to people in DC, basically doing a landscape analysis of black maternal health. What are we doing? Who’s talking about it? What are Black organizations actually doing about maternal health? And the answer was really nothing. At the same time, I was in a CoreAlign fellowship, which helped me begin to answer some of those questions. One of the major things I got out of it were the connections I still have to this day. We started doing work together that has transformed how people are paying attention to, talking about, and addressing black maternal health. 

I love starting things up. And CoreAlign encouraged that sense of being generative in me. Let’s get something off the ground. Let’s take an issue that no one’s talking about and blow it up. If you’re afraid of failure, then you’re also afraid to try new things. And I’ve turned to just trying stuff and seeing how it goes. Let’s try, let’s see. If it didn’t work so well, let’s try something else. Failure is an incomplete concept. When you try something and it doesn’t work, it’s just an opportunity to learn and to try something new.

There was an important moment where I had to fall in love with myself to some extent, to get to know myself and trust myself. I get tired of doing the same things. I always want to do something new and I want to keep growing and expanding. But I felt bad about it. I didn’t want to be flighty jumping from one thing to the next. But now, I’m in a place where I don’t feel bad about it anymore. What else can I build, or create, or do? In those moments where I’m excited about the future, those are the ones where I love myself. I believe in myself. I feel that I can accomplish anything, that I’m powerful.

This has always been my mission statement: to help women of color live their best lives. To have the resources, to have the opportunities to do that, to have an environment that supports that, and to have a network that supports them and their professional work. And then ultimately through their lives being better, they then impact other people. There are spillover effects that transform the Black community and that transform our society and the world. That’s what I’m trying to do: transform the world.